Monday, January 25, 2010

Pilgrimage to Esquipulas

Guest Blogger: Ben (still not making enough appearances to be considered a regular contributor!)

Last weekend, specifically January 15, marks the annual pilgrimage of thousands of Central Americans to Equipulas, Guatemala home to the “Black Christ” who resides in the beautiful Basilica de Esquipulas. While I have not witnessed Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca, I have to say the fact that thousands of people descend from Central America, Unites States, and Europe for this one day is rather impressive to me. But the Black Christ is not what you are thinking…no it’s not a burned visage of Christ on the Cross put there by a radical priest but rather a figurine carved out of local wood in 1595.

I personally was able to make my own pilgrimage of sorts to visit the church, with a fellow Guatemalan co-worker named Otto. This happened 3 months back so I am a little late in blogging, but the recent news coverage of the event made me want to share.

Friday, 12:40 pm: Last weekend we sadly learned that we can only enter into El Salvador (a much closer option) once a year with international plates and we used our turn up. Today is actually the last day that our car can legally be in Guatemala without paying for an import tax and buying Guatemalan plates. While the idea of Guate plates is rather appealing, the import tax at $2K US is not. So I decide with Otto to “make a run for the border” except in this case, we only stop at Taco Bell to eat lunch with his kids and then keep driving literally for the Honduran border. Satisfied with our chalupas and free soda refills (anomaly in Guate), we head east on the highway to Honduras to drop off his kids with in-laws for the weekend.

2:55 pm: Sitting in traffic after the stop at his mother-in-law's, Otto and I are listening to a mix of pirated CDs I bought at the market (Jay-Z, Melacates, Michael Jackson tribute album) while trying to figure out why we aren’t moving. 30 minutes later we cross a latex spill on the highway – appears that a transport carrier overturned and that this latex is slowing down traffic to a crawl. Literally, it coats the tires of cars and then peels off later as you drive away. Reminds me of days spent working with my Dad in his business painting this latex on rubber molds for veneer stone. Check out for the best there is in stone veneer products.

4:20 pm: No, not what some of you are thinking. We are driving along the Motagua River which forms part of the Guatemala/Honduras border and the scenery reminds me of Colorado. Pastoral fields with beef cattle and the scrub grass mountains in the backdrop as the sun sets. Aahhh.

6:33 pm: Arrive at the turn off to one of the border crossings with Honduras. True to my propensity for tardiness, we have 30 minutes to make it to the border before it closes. That said, we ask a local cop how long it will take to arrive there and he tells us it takes 30 minutes and, true to Guatemalan fashion, then tells us that he thinks it is closed. We opt to keep driving further east to the border crossing near Esquipulas. I had seen photos of the church there and wanted to see for myself the Black Christ.

7:36pm: Arriving at the border station, we immediately attract a crowd in our US car. Used to this by now, I ask about getting a new permit. After 15 minutes of discussion, it boils down to this: I need to drive the car across the Guatemalan border, get a stamp that says I left, park the car between the two countries in “no mans land” for the night, then arrive the next morning and pay the bank Q40 ($5 US) for the new permit. This is when it seems all is a go, the only glitch is parking the car somewhere secure and then getting a taxi back to Esquipulas.

8:00pm: Otto and I agree to have a taxi driver, or “taxista” drive us back to Esquipulas, take us to a hotel, and drive us back the next day for Q100. We agree to have the taxista find us a place to park, which happens to be his cousin with a bit of land and about 50 cars/buses parked around it which all have Florida plates. Moving those cars that US insurance companies “total” south through Central America for repairs and resell is big business. We agree with the cousin that we’ll pay Q100 for the night, and I feel better when a big german shepherd sounders out and barks repeatedly at me from a choker chain.

8:19pm: On our way to a “great” hotel that the taxista knows, I can only begin to describe the ride: fruit rolling around in the trunk of the 1982 toyota corolla behind me mixed with straight fumes from the missing muffler, music blaring from 1990 Kenwood KRC stereo that I think I bought in high school (Pitbull´s “I know you want me”, what else), and the fact we are going 90 mph with only one headlight. I smile at Otto and he chuckles.

8:30pm: Arrive at first hotel and true to fashion, another friend of the taxista’s. Place will do except that there is only one bed in the room. I tell the taxista, “somos amigos pero no novios” or “we are friends but not boyfriends”. We head to another hotel and settle into a place with two beds and a good breeze so that we don’t sweat all night.

8:43pm: Somewhere on my forehead it must say, “Please try to take my money”. Reason being, the taxista now wants me to pay him for the trip in full, plus the Q100 he said he paid his cousin for us to park. Frankly, I am tired and don’t care much about paying the money as I do the principle. When asked, the cousin said we can pay tomorrow and we never saw our taxista pay for us to park. Second, if we pay for all the night before, we will be thumbing it back to the border while our taxista is in bed. We argue for a while, and then decide with Otto to pay for half. The taxista is now angry but takes our money and tells us that we should just trust him. I would but unfortunately, have been burned like this once to many times.

9:05pm: The first thing that struck me in Esquipulas as we headed out for some dinner was that the Guatemalans didn’t appear like those I knew, they had distinct European features and Otto explained to me that this is why Guatemalan men say they want to find a wife from Esquipulas. We joked about this as we ate tacos and I had a couple beers to forget about the taxista. We looked through the gate at the big Basilica lit up for the night, but I would have to wait tomorrow to finish my pilgrimage.

Saturday, 4:03am: I lay awake in bed listening to the sounds outside my window of “Guate, Guate, Guate”. Seems that some ayudante (helper) for a bus to Guate is trying to let everyone in a 5 block radius that there is a bus leaving for Guatemala City. Who is leaving at this hour, I think to myself as I toss and try to turn in a bed as stiff as a brick.

6:45am: We are supposed to have our taxista pick us up at the hotel around 7, so I jump in the shower. 2 minutes later I am out since there is no hot water. Otto and I pay the hotel owner for the room and walk around looking for a cup of coffee. No coffee to be found, we head to the Basilica and snap some photos.

Your browser may not support display of this image.7:20am: The taxista calls us and we head to the border to handle the import paperwork. We find our car and wait at the permit office for the paper trail to begin. Guatemala has taught me that patience is a virtue, but that you have to be pushy to get what you need here. After the permit is pulled, I have to go to the bank (2 windows down) to pay. Problem is that the banker is having breakfast and no business happens until he returns. I go to the comedor where he and the customs officers are eating and grab a cup of coffee with Otto.

8:45am: Having paid for the permit, now I have to get an entrance stamp for my passport at customs. I chat with the customs officer and it turns out he has a 2005 Honda Element. Go figure. After discussing the new body style and gas mileage, he extends my visa for another 90 days even though I never really let Guatemala. He also shares with me that if we're thinking of selling Dewey, he's our guy. Sorry, not in the plan.

9:49am: We walk through the main area of the Basilica, and then wait in line to see the Black Christ. It strikes me as odd that everyone leaving the viewing area backs away as they descend the ramp. Otto explains that it is to show respect to Christ as by not turning your back. We approach the Black Christ and on first view, it is amazing to consider the time and detail it took to carve the face that looks down on the main church area below. There are entire families praying in front of Christ, a grandmother with her daughters circling her wheelchair, and hushed prayers all around me. After our place in the queue, we descend down the ramp and I remember to back away.

10:32am: We are on our way back to Guatemala City and as we planned, are going to stop and hike to the top of Volcano Ipala on our way. The volcano is visible as we drive north and true to the description I read in Lonely Planet, has a flat top where there is a clear lake. We drive to the parking area and start our ascent, armed with a bottle of water and a bag of trail mix. Not long after 45 minutes, we reach the summit and after paying the entrance fee, hike to this great overlook.

1:50pm: Back at the car and after stopping for chucherías (junk food), I am tired and Otto takes over driving toward the City. It starts to rain as we drive back along the PanAmerican highway, and I think back about the other hike that Krista and I did to Laguna Chicabal outside Xela. Sitting in our car dry and not shivering on a bus soaked to the bone like during that trip a year ago, I reflected on how having a car does make it easier to travel - even if it requires border runs every 3 months.

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